The Minnesota-based Jayhawks have made their name from some strong songwriting and quality production. This should only consolidate their position.
Label: Sham/Thirty Tigers
Time: 12 + 3 tracks / 46 + 10 minutes
There’s not one track here like another. Opener “This Forgotten Town,” with its distinctively raw pedal steel playing, is Americana. With vocals sounding like John Lennon, “Dogtown Days” is reminiscent of Beatles-impersonators Oasis at their mellowest. Then “Living in a Bubble” and “Ruby” are both piano-based, the former almost jaunty and the latter a wistful ballad, where Eric Heywood’s pedal steel is more refined. When “Homecoming” comes along, with its almost psychedelic overtones (possibly helped by the tune reminding me of “My Green Tambourine”) it has been five very different tracks out of five.
While there are no radically new directions sonically, these differences must come from the change of band dynamics in the writing department. This is the first time in eleven releases that the bandleader Gary Louris has invited (or permitted) each of the quartet to pen songs.
Of those first five, “Homecoming” is his, but the Brit-influenced “Dogtown Days” comes from drummer Tim O’Reagan; the satisfyingly complete “Ruby” is keys player Karen Grotberg’s; while bassist Marc Perlman wrote the acoustic “Down to the Farm.”
The latter has a frailty reminiscent of Fleet Foxes in its harmonies (a Jayhawks speciality) and vocal effects, while “Across my Field”, another adorned by pedal steel, is similarly beautiful.
With four writers, you also find a range of topics. This selection includes songs about the 24-hour news cycle; stories about characters who may or may not be fictional (the more-ish “Bitter Pill”); and the harmony-rich “Illuminate,” a late-era-Beatles-ish piece that namechecks the cult leader “narcoleptic shaman Jim Jones” as it knocks false prophets.
Louris still shows his talents on the climate-change song “Homecoming,” with lines like,
“All the writing's on the wal, yet we refuse to read it
Heads buried in the sand...
The next generation is watching the clock wind down...
Stealing their dreams one day at a time.”
While “Society Pages” is less compelling than the other tracks, it still makes a point about the celebrity circuit “He’s a clown in cashmere/He’s a crowd pleaser/You can never trust a man/Who can’t finish his beer.”
There are three bonus songs on the special edition. The cynic in me asks whether they have deliberately placed one of the strongest tracks there for the extra sales – the Louris number “Then You Walked Away” is the standout by a long way.